Childhood & Early Life
Schneerson was born on April 18, 1902, in Nikolaev in the then-Russian Empire (now Mykolaiv, Ukraine). His parents were Rebbetzin Chana Schneerson and Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Schneerson. He was named after his paternal ancestor, also known as the Tzemach Tzedek and the third Chabad rebbe.
At the age of 6, his family moved to the then-Yekatrinislav (now Dnipro), as his father was appointed as the city’s chief rabbi.
Between 1909 and 1913, he was taught privately by Zalman Vilenkin. Later, his father taught him the ‘Talmud,’ rabbinic literature, and the Kabbalah. He mastered them with ease and took exams for both Talmudic and Kabbalistic studies, as an external student of the local ‘Soviet School.’ At the age of 17, he had become an expert in the entire ‘Talmud,’ mastering close to 6,000 pages, and was considered an “Illui” (A young ‘Torah’ and Talmudic prodigy).
Growing up, he assisted his father in his office. Also, whenever required, he acted as an interpreter between the Russian authorities and the Jewish community.
He received rabbinical ordinations twice: the first from Yosef Rosen, known as Rogatchover Gaon, and the second from Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg, the author of ‘Sridei Aish.’
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Following Schneerson’s marriage to Chaya Mushka in 1928, he moved to Berlin, Germany. There, he studied math, physics, and philosophy at the ‘University of Berlin.’
In Berlin, as instructed by his father-in-law, Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, he carried out specific communal tasks, including writing scholarly annotations to the responsa and various Hasidic discourses of the earlier rebbes of the Chabad-Lubavitch.
The stay in Berlin lasted till 1933, as he moved to Paris, France. He continued with the religious work, representing his father-in-law.
He graduated in mechanics and electrical engineering from ‘École Spéciale des Travaux Publics, du bâtiment et de l’industrie (ESTP),’ Montparnasse district, in 1937. He joined ‘Sorbonne,’ officially the ‘University of Paris,’ to study math in November 1937. A lot of eminent educationists and rabbis consulted him in Paris.
As World War II broke out, Paris was on the verge of falling into the hands of the ‘Nazis.’ Thus, the Schneersons fled to Vichy, followed by Nice. Later, in 1941, they escaped to America from Lisbon, Portugal. The day before they left, he documented his vision for the future of world Jewry and humanity. Later, on June 23, 1941, they landed in New York.
Immediately after his arrival in New York, he was appointed the director and chairman of ‘Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch,’ ‘Machneh Israel,’ and the ‘Kehot Publication Society,’ three prominent Chabad organizations. As years passed, Yosef Yitzchak directed to him the countless scholarly queries that he received. Thus, he gained the reputation of being the personal representative of Yosef Yitzchak.
He became a naturalized American citizen in the 1940s. He volunteered for the war effort and was involved in classified military work. His electrical engineering background came in handy while drawing the wiring diagrams of the battleship ‘USS Missouri.’
Being at the helm of the affairs at ‘Kehot,’ not only did he publish his works ‘Hayom Yom’ and ‘Hagadda’ in 1943 and 1946, respectively, but he also released the works of the earlier rebbes of Chabad.
After the end of World War II, he visited Paris in 1947, where he established schools for girls and supported organizations for the rehabilitation of refugees and displaced persons.
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In 1950, his father-in-law passed away, and the Chabad movement was left without a leader. The followers insisted Schneerson take the reins, but he was unwilling to do so. However, after a year of being persuaded, he finally yielded and accepted the responsibility on the death anniversary on Yosef Yitzchak. He thus became the seventh Chabad rebbe.
He worked diligently as a rebbe and spent a lot of time with ordinary people. He listened to them and discussed spiritual and mundane matters with them privately. These meetings were called ‘Yechidus.’ However, due to a large number of people visiting these meetings, continuing them became a challenging task. Thus, they had to be inevitably discontinued in 1982.
With the liberation of Israel in 1948, he got actively involved in establishing it as a strong military, industrial, and economic power. In 1950, he supported the formation of the first Israeli automobile company. Between 1951 and 1957, to educate and impart various trade skills to the youth, new immigrants, and the survivors of the ‘Holocaust,’ he was on a spree of establishing schools and institutes for vocational training in carpentry, woodwork, agriculture, printing & publishing, and textiles.
Beginning with the Chabad women’s and girl’s organization and youth organization in Israel in 1951, he established similar organizations in 1953, in New York, London, and Toronto. These were his initiatives to encourage women to take up high-level ‘Torah’ education, which is usually dominated by men. Also, through his representative, he established synagogues and schools in Morocco.
Toward the mid-1960s, he launched the ‘Mitzvah Campaigns’ to promote the observance of the 10 basic Jewish practices, such as Shabbat candles for women and tefillin for men. His initiative earned him the title “The Great Modern Popularizer of Tefillin.”
During the Cold War era, he adopted what he called “quiet diplomacy” to support the Soviet Jewry, which, according to him, was being oppressed by the communist regime. He oversaw the arrangements of the release and rehabilitation of a lot Jews and the migration of a lot more from the former Soviet Union to Israel. In 1986, in the aftermath of the Chernobyl explosion, he formed a special organization to rescue Ukranian Jews.
The ‘Chanukah Campaign’ was begun by him in 1973. It inspired Jews across the globe to light a “menorah” of their own. However, as this campaign gained popularity, and as people started lighting on public grounds, it faced legal issues. However, the ‘Supreme Court’ ruled in favor of the observation. Another famous Jewish celebration he popularized was the ‘Lag BaOmer,’ with a parade at 770, Eastern Parkway, Crown Heights, Brooklyn, New York, the world headquarters of the Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic movement.
Being a champion of education, he declared 1977 as the “Year of Education” and suggested the ‘U.S. Congress’ does so, too. However, the government announced the following year as the “Year of Education” and his birthday, April 18, as the “Day of Education,” which is now an annual observance. President Ronald Regan, in 1982, declared his birthday as the “National Day of Reflection” and handed over the “National Scroll of Honor” to him.
During the period of the Islamic revolution in 1979 and the consequential Iranian hostage crisis, Schneerson was prompted to helm the rescue of Jewish youth and teenagers from Iran. His actions brought several thousands of Iranian children to the safety of the U.S.
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He believed that gaining knowledge of the Supreme Being and following Noahide Laws are the basis for human rights and launched a promotional campaign to create awareness for the same in 1983. In the following year, he established the daily study of Maimonides’s ‘Mishneh Torah,’ which became an annual cyclical event followed by Jewish leaders all over the globe.
To instill the habit of charity in people, in 1986, he started the practice of handing out a dollar bill to the people he met during office hours on Sundays. He urged them to donate to any charitable organization of their choice. He made this a habit that later became a custom, popularly called ‘Sunday Dollars.’
Schneerson had his share of controversies, too. One such controversy was caused by the death of a Guyanese–American child in a crash caused by a car that belonged to his cavalcade. This accident sparked the Crown Heights riot in 1991. Some of his statements, especially those made during the Six-Day War and Operation Entebbe had invited criticism.
A few of his teachings, letters, and discourses that have been published are ‘Likkutei Sichot,’ ‘Igrot Kodesh,’ and ‘Reshimot’ (a journal discovered after his death).
His work was successful in establishing and building schools, community centers, and youth camps in over 100 countries and 1,000 cities around the world, contributing to more than 3,600 institutions. Thus, he created an international network of emissaries, known as “shluchim.”
He was posthumously honored with the ‘Congressional Gold Medal’ for his extraordinary service to promote education, morality, and charitable causes.
A section of Chabad messianism continues to believe that he is the Messiah and is still alive.
Family, Personal Life, & Death
Schneerson’s father was an inspiration to him. He imbibed the same courage and principles that his father possessed.
He had two younger brothers: Dov Ber and Yisrael Aryeh Leib. Both of them had untimely deaths. The former was murdered by ‘Nazi’ collaborators in 1944, and the latter died in 1952.
He met his future wife, Chaya Mushka, in 1923. They got married in 1928, though they were engaged to each other much earlier. The couple was childless. His wife died on February 10, 1988.
In 1977, he survived a heart attack. Fifteen years later, he suffered a stroke that rendered him partially paralyzed and caused speech impairment. He breathed his last on June 12, 1994, at the age of 92.
His funeral was attended by a lot of dignitaries. His final resting place is considered holy by many.
According to his will, the stewardship of all the major Chabad institutions and his possessions were transferred to ‘Agudas Chassidei Chabad.’